THE BOOK OF CONCORD: Thoreau's Life as a Writer by William Howarth

THE BOOK OF CONCORD: Thoreau's Life as a Writer

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Professor Howarth (Princeton) knows as much about Thoreau as anyone alive. In particular, his 15 years spent on Thoreau's manuscripts, including a long stint as editor-in-chief of the 25-volume collected words of HDT (still slowly trickling from the presses), would seem to make him the ideal guide to Thoreau's sprawling Journal, which was undeniably the matrix of his creative life. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out that way. This meticulous little study chronicles Thoreau's authorial behavior (when he wrote, how much, under what circumstances, in what vein--moral, philosophical, scientific, etc.) with great scholarly care; but it gives us no clear, convincing picture of his authorial development. It's not that Howarth can't see the forest for the trees: he does make an effort to balance the fine detail (the complex publication history of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, say) with a consideration of larger issues (Thoreau's rather muted eroticism, his violent enthusiasm for John Brown). But his treatment is too atomistic, too close to the text, too much like the Journal it's describing. Howarth's chief deficiency is as a critic. While he may provide a lot of fresh information on Thoreau, he doesn't make us see Thoreau afresh. Time and time again Howarth simply characterizes a passage as ""impressive,"" and then moves on. Thoreau is admittedly a mercurial writer, and he died in mid-career, leaving us to wonder and argue about the true shape of his achievement. Still, one wishes that from the depth of his knowledge (extra-academic, too--he has literally followed Thoreau's footsteps all over the Northeast), Howarth might have brought up something richer and fuller.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Viking